Saturday, March 14, 2009

Penalizing foster parents for caring for detained youth

L.A. County probation's wrongful billing angers foster advocates
Hennessy-Fiske, Molly. Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2009.

Advocates for foster parents of troubled youths are incensed that Los Angeles County probation officials billed them daily for their children's stays in juvenile detention, garnished their pay and placed liens on their homes.

"It would be just as logical to bill the teacher of the child or the Sunday school teacher or the minister," said Bob Thomas, a University of San Diego law professor and director of the Children's Advocacy Institute, calling the bills "inexcusable."

"You could ruin their credit," Thomas said. "It's very serious to send a bill to somebody backed up by sanctions."

Aubrey Manuel, 50, a retired bank worker in South Los Angeles and foster father of six adolescent boys, has been fighting probation bills for years.

"I would send them back saying I don't owe this," said Manuel, president of California State Care Providers Assn. "The next thing I know, there's this lien on my property."

Foster parents often did not have the means to pay probation bills that added up to thousands of dollars. Although the state reimburses them for some of the cost of care, based on the ages and the number of their foster children, those payments stop for a youth who is detained.

Furthermore, foster care groups have long complained that the state payments are too low.

Foster care payments top out at $627 a month for youths 15 to 17, which works out to about $21 a day. By contrast, Los Angeles County probation charges $23.63 a day for juvenile hall stays.

The last foster care reimbursement increase two years ago was 5%, about $22 extra a month per parent. Several foster parent groups sued the state to increase payments; and in October a federal district court judge in San Francisco ruled in their favor, although the state is appealing.

Regina Deihl, executive director of San Francisco-based Legal Advocates for Permanent Parenting, called the billing of foster parents "insulting."

"It's particularly alarming and disturbing in this time of economic stress that you are seeing this going on," said Deihl, who is also a foster parent and has seen the ranks thin in recent years.

"We are losing people," she said.

The number of foster parents in Los Angeles County has dropped about 22% during the last five years, from 8,453 to 6,577. Although the number of children in need of foster care also contracted about 25% during that period as more youths were reunited with their natural families or adopted, Deihl said some of the foster parents who left the system are most needed now: those, like Manuel, who are willing to take in troubled youth, many of whom land in detention.

Both probation and the courts have recently started new programs that target at-risk foster youth, including a Georgetown University Center for Juvenile Justice Reform training project and a pilot program offering intensive intervention and support for foster youth in Pasadena juvenile court. But they do not track how many foster youths are detained each year, and Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Michael Nash has acknowledged that more needs to be done to prevent them from "crossing over" from foster care to detention.

"For kids who do cross over, we need to get a handle on what's going on in their life," Deihl said. "Just billing parents is not the answer."

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